Story (c) 2000-2003 by Hikaru Katayamma/Keith Dickinson. All rights reserved. The character Sheila Vixen (c) Eric W Schwartz. Throckmorton P Ruddygore, Poqua, Lakash (c) Jack L Chalker. Jack (c) David Hopkins. All other characters are (c) Hikaru Katayamma.  This story contains adult situations and language. By reading it the viewer agrees not to hold this or any other person responsible for any content they may find objectionable. If you don't like it, don't read it.

Identity Crisis
Chapter 29

The spirit hits the fan.

The meandering road that the carriage had been following for the last couple of days had recently widened into something approaching a proper two-lane road. More and more, Sheila had to guide their horse around pedestrian traffic that was going either towards or coming from the town ahead. As they crest the hill, she got her first look at a real city. Multiple concentric walls circled the central castle, each standing over a hundred feet tall with gates you could drive a 747 Jumbo Jet through. The gentle rolling hills that surrounded the town were covered with a criss-cross of fields, each growing a different product. Half dozen or so other roads made their way from the distant woods in all directions, leading to the city.

Sheila let out a low whistle as she took in the sight. "Now that's one hell of a town," she commented Arden who was reclining in the seat next to her. "I wonder how many people it holds?"

"Close to half a million, give or take a few," he said without opening his eyes. "This is the capital for the region. There's a king up in that castle and Ruddygore is his sorcerer."

The vixen nodded. "So Ruddygore's going to be up there?"

Arden sat up straight and stretched his arms and back before answering her. "Nope. He's about four days to the west of here."

"WHAT?" she demanded, muzzle agape. "Damn it! We just came from that direction!"

"Yep," the man replied, unfazed by her reaction. "And we'll be going back that direction once we're done here."

"What the hell is so important about this place that we had to come here when we're supposed to be going to Ruddygore's?"

"There's a High Priest of Suffok here that we need to see," he replied with a small grin. "Or have you forgotten that I want to get that curse off of you."

The vixen cocked an ear back as she thought about his reply. "Yah…well… Couldn't Ruddygore get rid of it? He is supposed to be this all powerful magic guy."

Arden shrugged. "He probably could have. But I didn't want to risk having to haggle with him for the service." Before Sheila could reply, he continued. "And yes, I know we have to deal with him about getting home, but that bargain has already been struck by Lakash."

"Harrumph," Sheila grunted, frowning as she gave up on the argument for the moment. "Won't you still have to work out some kind of deal with this priest, or is he going to do it for free?"

"That," he replied, pausing for a moment, "is the twenty four dollar question, actually. It's not so much if he'll do it, but for how much. At least all he'll want is gold."

Arden threaded the buggy's path through the meandering streets of the bustling city, towards a large ivory colored temple. As they got closer, Sheila had to lean out slightly so as to be able to look up at the details of the gothic building.

"Man, this looks like one of those old churches over in Europe," the vixen commented, squinting up to see the top of the building that seemed to touch the sky. "I'll bet a lot of people went hungry to build that thing."

"Probably," Arden replied, turning the buggy onto a drive that passed under a huge portcullis that guarded the entrance to the grounds. "If there's one constant in the universe it's that big churches don't get that way without stepping on the little guy."

"Huh," she replied with a sigh. "And here I thought that religions like this were the good guys."

"They are," he replied, pulling the buggy to a stop in front of the ornate double doors. "This is it."

As the pair climbed out of the buggy, a young acolyte came to give Sheila a hand. Arden walked around to offer his hand also. After a minute, an elderly man with a well-trimmed gray beard and just a wisp of gray hair on his head came down the steps. His long, silver and white robe brushed the ground as he glided down the steps. He came to a stop about five feet from the pair and bowed. "My name is Jarad. I believe that you two must be the Arden and Sheila that we have been expecting."

"Indeed," Arden replied, bowing in return. "I'm glad to see that my communication made it. You understand our needs?"

The old man nodded. "Indeed. However, to determine if we can help, we must examine the spell that is bound to her." He paused for a moment while he looked Sheila over. His brow furrowed and a frown crept over his mouth. "That is some most extraordinary clothing she is wearing. Unfortunately, I'm unable to get a good look at the curse with it on." He waved a hand towards the door and nodded to Sheila. "If you will please accompany me inside, I'll be better able to examine the spell away from prying eyes."

Arden nodded to Sheila. "It's OK. Go with him."

"You're not coming?" She asked, glancing nervously at the old man and the church.

"I can't, Sheila," Arden replied with a frown. "There are rules that I have to obey and one of them says I can't go into that building." He smiled then reached out and cupped her cheek in his hand. "It'll be OK. Trust me."

"Yah, how many times have I heard that before," she muttered before turning back to the priest. "All right. Lead on, McDuck."

Hecate skimmed low over the trees as she approached the small town. Ahead, she sensed something that she thought just might be Sheila. The armor that the vixen wore was damned good at hiding its presence, but Hecate had been around it long enough to sniff out its weaknesses. Gliding on the night air, she found a suitable darkened alley that gave her enough room to come in for a silent landing. Once on the ground, she concentrated on her appearance, once more becoming a fair skinned elf.

Exiting the alleyway, she turned to get her bearings on her sixth sense. After a few moments she made up her mind and proceeded deeper into town, walking casually along the boardwalk. Occasionally she would nod a greeting to someone going the other way as people went about their business. Glancing around as she walked, she was stunned to see one of the dwarfs that had been hunting them earlier come out of a bar. The dwarf glanced about, appearing to pay no attention to the elf before turning and walking away from her.

Without missing a step, Hecate continued down the street, taking no special notice of the dwarf until half a dozen streets later, he turned off of the main thoroughfare. She casually crossed the street at that intersection and followed him until he turned into an alley. As she passed the alley, she saw his shadowed form turning right to pass behind the building she was in front of. Picking up her pace slightly, she went to the next alley and turned down it, gathering the shadows around her. Taking great care, she quickly navigated the length of the alley without a sound. Once at the corner of the building, she peeked in all directions, looking for the dwarf. "Since he didn't cross the alley here, he must have gone into one of these two buildings," she thought, stepping out into the alley.

Picking the door on the right at random, she was about to check it for spells when a voice interrupted her. "Well, well , well," a gruff, gravely voice muttered, coming from the shadows. Moments later the dwarf she'd been following stepped out from behind a couple of barrels. "If it isn't the great huntress, Hecate," he observed with a chuckle.

Wary of a trap, Hecate drew her sword and glanced around before taking a close look at the chuckling dwarf. She was about to speak when a realization hit her. "What the… Rathsmon?"

The dwarf bowed with a flourish. "At your service." He leaned back against a barrel and smiled. "I was wondering when you would show up."

"Where's the Vixen?" the elf demanded, sheathing her sword.

"Sheila?" Rathsmon asked, glancing idly around. "She's not here at the moment."

"What? She's not here!" The Imir reached out and grabbed the small dwarf and hauled him up to her level. "Were the hell is she and why aren't you guarding her?"

"Put me down," the small man demanded in a dangerous tone. Their eyes locked in a brief contest of wills before the elf dropped him to the ground. "That's better," he replied, straightening his clothes. "You could have damaged my threads."

"To hell with your threads," she growled in angry voice. "Where's the bitch?"

Rathsmon stepped over to the barrels again where he proceeded to use a small crate to climb up and sit down on one, putting him closer to eye level with the elf. "You know, you should really learn to relax. You're going to burst a blood vessel one of these days if you keep going off like that." His hands shot up in defense as the elf took an angry step towards him. "All right. Take it easy. She's in the capital right now getting that curse removed."

"You let her go to the capital alone?" Her tail lashed out, striking a crate, shattering it and sending shards flying down the alley. "What the hell were you thinking?"

"It wasn't my decision," he replied with a shrug. "Arden's with her. He told me to wait for them here and act as a decoy for the other hunters."

Hecate paused to study the dwarf. "Arden sent you here as a decoy? Damn it! So I've been tracking you all along?"

"Yep. He cast a spell on me before we split up. He also fixed her armor so it won't be so easy to track. As it is, the other hunters are here waiting for Sheila to stick her muzzle out of hiding, only they don't quite know she's not here yet." He gave the Imir a smug smile that showed off a set of crooked teeth. "And now that you're here, everyone will be sure that the vixen is around which means that you get decoy duty now."

"Oh no!" she said, waving her hands at the idea. "I am not going to be playing decoy. I'm going to go and make sure that my prize is safe. I don't trust Arden not to screw up again and lose her."

Rathsmon let out a long sigh. "He didn't screw up. He's been playing the odds since she stuck him in the dragon." He frowned and shrugged. "He knew there was no way he could beat the other dragon riders, and he needed a distraction. He took most of them out at the farm by booby-trapping the cattle. The ones he didn't kill, he fooled into thinking that he was dead after he went into the river."

"All right then," Hecate replied, leaning against a large crate. "If he's been planning this, then why not let us in on it, and where the hell has he been?"

"First of all, he needed you both to think that he was dead. Not just act that way, but really believe it." He let out a bit of an evil chuckle and shook his head. "He was counting on Sheila complaining about his incompetence with great volume and vigor." He smiled as Hecate nodded. "As for where he's been. He was the guy who saved Sheila in the forest while you went to get firewood."

"Wait a minute," the elf interrupted, leaning forward slightly. "From Sheila's description, the guy that saved her had a soul sword. How did Arden wind up with one of those?"

Again, Rathsmon shrugged. "I don't know. All I know is that it had Hukkath's glyph on it, and he used it to clean out a town that was in default on a bargain."

"Hukkath?" the ebony woman muttered to herself. "What the hell was he doing dealing with Hukkath?"

"I don't know. It has something to do with some sort of deal so that hell would release the soul of a friend of his." The dwarf jumped down from the barrel and brushed his rear off. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to be getting back, or the other dwarves will miss me."

Hecate looked down and cocked an eye at the small man. "They don't know that the body's been possessed?"

"Nope," he said with a gleeful smile. "And unless I screw up completely, they won't." He leaned towards her and whispered in a conspiratorial voice, "You'd be amazed at the things I can do with a really fresh body."

"Great." She sat back and crossed her arms as the dwarf waddled away into the dark. "I'm stuck here acting as decoy while a wild card protects my investment. He better not lose her or I'll be dining on dragon."

Arden stood up as the priest and Sheila exited the cathedral. He met them at the base of the stairs. "Is the curse gone?" he asked, glancing at a rather unhappy vixen.

"I'm afraid that we can not remove the curse," Jarad replied in a sorrowful voice. "There were unexpected complications that put the spell beyond our reach."

"Unexpected complications?" the tall man parroted angrily. "What the hell are you talking about? It's a simple disrupted love spell, for Christ's sake."

"I'm sorry. We can't help you," the priest replied, turning to return to the building.

Arden grabbed his arm. "Wait a minute. I'll double the fee. Hell, I'll triple it." He scowled at the man. "Price is no object."

"I'm sorry," the man repeated, pulling his arm away from Arden. "We simply are unable to affect the curse."

Closing his eyes and counting to ten, the tall warrior took a deep breath to calm down. "Fine," he said opening his eyes again. "Then tell me, where there's a coven around here that can handle a high end summoning?"

"Eh?" the priest grunted in surprise. "A coven? Which kind, white or black?"

Arden's face became a mask of stone. "Black."

The priest frowned for a moment before answering. "Turn right at the street and go to the first main road that crosses it. Turn left and you'll see a temple for the Sisterhood of the Snake." He then turned and quickly walked back into the temple without saying another word.

"What where you talking about?" Sheila asked as she was helped into the buggy. "What's this about a black coven?"

"It's time for me to call in a debt," he replied, climbing into the other side. "I'm going to have to summon up a rather high level demon of Hell and that's going to take some high class facilities with a good stock of the proper reagents to do it."

The vixen nodded as they turned on to the street. "And you don't expect to have any trouble with this demon?"

"Quite the contrary," He replied with a grim tone. "In fact, I'll probably have to go to extremes to get him to hold up his end of it." He gave her a dangerous, predatory smile. "It should be very… entertaining."